Internal and External Stigmas of Program Participation: A Longitudinal Study of Children, Tweens, and Teens

Monday, June 13, 2016: 10:35 AM
F55 (Huntsman Hall)

Author(s): Christina Robinson; Paramita Dhar

Discussant: Daniel Grossman

Households participating in public assistance programs (i.e., SNAP, WIC, Medicaid, TANF, etc.) are, by definition, experiencing periods of material and economic hardship. Many are also suffering from food insecurity. As a result, the decision makers within these families are often under stress, malnourished, and suffering an internal or external welfare stigma resulting in feelings of anxiety, depression, and worthlessness. Moreover, their tight time and budget constraints limit their ability to engage in quality interactions with their family members.

This, in turn, subjects children to strain and uncertainty that they are neither accustomed to nor equipped to handle. Oftentimes, children absorb and internalize their parents stress resulting in lower physical and mental health. Whether participation in public assistance programs mitigates or magnifies this effect has, thus far, remained ambiguous. On the one hand, program participation could ease the family’s budget and time constraints, leading to improved parentchild interactions and a more stable living environment. In this case, program participation would improve the child’s mental health. On the other hand, it is possible that children view their family’s participation as an indication that they are inferior or are made to feel this way by their peers, resulting in a stigma similar to that felt by adults.

The impact participation has on children may not be universal, but may depend on program and child-specific characteristics. Older children may, for example, be more aware of their family’s participation and more likely to feel stigmatized than their younger counterparts. Programmatic conditions may also play a deterministic role, as children may feel more stigmatized when they believe their peers are aware of their family’s circumstance(s). The length of time a family is enrolled may also influence the child’s mental state, as those who have been participating for several years may view participation differently than those whose family has enrolled more recently.

This study uses data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 (NLSY79) and the NLSY79 Child and Young Adult cohort to examine the impact program participation has on the mental health of children, tweens, and teens. Often unaware that they are suffering mental or emotional hardships, children, tweens, and teens tend to demonstrate poor mental health through their observable behaviors. More specifically, those experiencing emotional distress are likely to exhibit signs of being antisocial, feeling anxious/depressed, feeling angry, having a short temper, being headstrong, being hyperactive, or experiencing conflict with their peers. Using a dose-response model, the short and long-term impacts of program participation on mental health are quantified for those between the ages of 4 and 18 years. Preliminary results indicate that participation increases the behavioral problems demonstrated by males, but does not do the same for females and that program characteristics influence the magnitude of the effect.

These findings could have important policy implications as mental health plays a large role in a child’s ability to focus and succeed at school, which in turn influences their experiences in the labor market and their propensity to become part of the poverty cycle.